Japan’s opposition leader said Wednesday he will not quit after the arrest of a key aide in a donations scandal that has dealt a major blow to the party’s efforts to topple unpopular prime minister Taro Aso’s government later this year.
Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan and a top contender to become the next prime minister, said no laws were broken and suggested the arrest was politically motivated.
“What my aide has done is perfectly legal,” Ozawa said at a news conference a day after the arrest of Takanori Okubo on suspicion of violating regulations on political funding.
“I have nothing to feel guilty about,” Ozawa said.
Ozawa said Tuesday’s raid of his office by prosecutors might be politically motivated, as elections for the lower house of parliament must take place by September 10.
“This unprecedented probe came as we are in the midst of heading toward the lower house polls. I feel this is an execution of power carried out by authorities in a politically and legally unfair manner.”
Tokyo prosecutors allege that Ozawa’s political funding organisation, Rikuzankai, received 21 million yen (US$216,000) in illegal donations between 2003-07 from two company executives at the scandal-tainted construction firm Nishimatsu Construction Co Ltd The two executives were also arrested Tuesday.
Okubo is the chief accountant of Rikuzankai.
Ozawa called the arrest of Okubo and the ensuing investigation “extremely unfair.”
The arrest was seen as a major setback to Japan’s largest opposition party, which is surging in popularity polls and is seen by experts as being in position to oust the country’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election. The Liberal Democrats have ruled Japan for most of the past 50 years.
Ozawa, once a powerful LDP kingmaker who later defected, has received more public support than Aso in recent voter polls.
In a survey by the Mainichi newspaper last month, some 25% of respondents favoured Ozawa as Japan’s next prime minister, against just 8% for Aso.
But Hiroshi Kawahara, political science professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the arrest of Ozawa’s top aide will have serious repercussions for the opposition party.
“It really marred the image of the party, as many voters see it as the only alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party,” Kawahara said.
If convicted, Okubo, who is also accused of faking reports on political funding, could receive up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 1 million yen.
The construction officials face up to three-years in prison or fines of up to 500,000 yen for violating laws that ban company donations to political groups.